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A Guide to Quick Diagnosis

Experienced writing teachers are often able to diagnose problems in a student’s essay very quickly. While that may seem like magic, in fact, they’ve internalized a scale of concerns that begins with the global and moves toward the local, and they know students need to begin to revise by addressing global problems first. The most global concern is thesis. After that comes structure. Then evidence. And finally style.

Experienced writing teachers and tutors also know that student essays often have unpredictable patterns of problems. The following chart, adapted from Kerry Walk’s “Types of Problematic Papers” (in the Bulletin of the Harvard Writing Project), outlines a few types of problematic essays, most of which have trouble with the thesis. Keep these types of essays in mind while reading draft. One of the lessons you’ll learn from this chart is not to worry if most of your consultations focus on thesis. That’s the most important global element of an essay, and the point at which most revision should begin.


The Museum Tour, a.k.a The Laundry List

  • Lists reasons, components, proofs, or examples rather than exploring a question or developing an argument.
  • The apparent problem is a predictable structure; the actual problem is a descriptive rather than argumentative thesis.
  • Ask the writer to pose a provocative question and posit a good answer about one coherent issue or theme.

The Confusing Paper

  • Typically the product of a student writer who doesn’t know either how to develop a thesis that drives the paper’s structure or how to organize ideas.
  • The apparent problem is an unpredictable structure; the actual problem may have to do with thesis.
  • If the paper lacks an arguable central claim, work with the writer to develop a better one. If the paper has such a claim, work with the writer to develop a logical argument to support it.

The Unpersuasive Paper

  • Falls into two main types, in which: 1) the claims are based on a misreading or a preconception; 2) the claims are sound but unsubstantiated; any evidence is insufficiently analyzed.
  • Unpersuasive papers play fast and loose with evidence and/or fail to analyze the evidence sufficiently, i.e., connect it to the claim.
  • Prompt the writer to re-examine both claims and evidence by asking: Where’s the evidence to support each claim? How do you account for counter-evidence? How can you analyze evidence so that the reader sees what you see?

The Hard-to-Read Paper

  • Usually exhibits the symptoms of one or more of the other paper types, but also has hard-to-read sentences, often either highly abstract or simplistic. Conceptual problems are compounded by problems with style and audience.
  • The contorted writers believe that academic writing is inflated; the simplistic writers have little experience writing in an academic context.
  • Ask the contorted writers to listen to their draft aloud and work to make written sentences as clear as spoken ones. Help the simplistic writers pattern their sentences after good models.